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Mercury News editorial: ‘Jungle’ residents still need city, county help

The dismantling of San Jose’s Story Road homeless encampment known as the Jungle has drawn national attention. Once again, it’s those crazy Californians — in the middle of one of the wealthiest regions in the United States, they managed to amass what may well have been the country’s largest homeless encampment, with estimates as high as 300 residents.

As the camp vanishes and the highly polluted Coyote Creek watershed returns to its natural state, here’s the challenge: The people who lived there until this week must not also vanish. City, county and nonprofit agencies need to continue their work to find them permanent housing.

This is the strategy of the collaborative called Destination: Home. It has worked in other parts of the country: Given a stable home and the counseling and other services people need, they stay, and community costs plunge.

Some 140 residents have been placed in housing in the months leading up to this deadline to close the encampment, and 50 more have rent vouchers; few choose to stay outdoors if they have an alternative.

Nobody pretends removing this camp is a solution to homelessness. But the mandate to end the public health, safety and environmental disasters that converged there was strong. Nonprofit and even state environmental agencies threatened legal action against the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District over the filth in the watershed. It threatened the health of people living there. At the same time, criminal activity has victimized camp residents and menaced nearby neighborhoods.

Still, the tragedy of residents left hauling carts of their belongings out of the soggy camp Thursday was heartbreaking.

The ranks of the homeless increased dramatically during and since the recession because so many individuals and families lost jobs and homes. Then, when the economy picked up, rents quickly soared — but many of the jobless had to re-enter the workforce at lower pay. The culmination of this perfect storm of human tragedy was the state’s dismantling of redevelopment programs without replacing their role in creating subsidized housing, which is critical in high-cost areas like this.

So while many camp residents have found homes, others are simply moving to less visible places, leading to the Whac-A- Mole analogies on social media. These are the residents who need to be carefully tracked and helped, along with the other less visible homeless.

This may involve taking an interim step of placing temporary housing on public land like the county fairgrounds. Mayor-elect Sam Liccardo’s idea of converting underutilized motel rooms to efficiency apartments already is in the works.

The Jungle has been a symbol of Silicon Valley homelessness. Let’s make sure that when the symbol has vanished, we don’t lose sight of the people left out in the rain.